When I was much younger I was unbelievably more prolific as a composer than I am now—in high school, I composed a three-movement piano concerto in only nine days. Nowadays I consider it a good year if I complete a piece of music. Admittedly I don’t compose full-time, and I’m rarely in situations where there’s intense deadline pressure to crank something out; those rare times I am in that situation, I’m usually very uncomfortable (even though I love improvising).
So, you might be asking (unless the above is true for you as well), what went wrong with my compositional development? For starters, I have a lot less time on my hands. But also, when I was younger I was full of a bloated sense of self-importance and, as a result, was a lot less critical of my own work than I later became. (That nine-day concerto has never been performed and hopefully never will be.)
But another arguably more significant factor, I think, is that I wasn’t nearly as informed about all the music that was out there. Therefore, the weight of all of the world’s pre-existing music was not something I felt compelled to have to live up to. Not that I imagine any of my work to be as important as name-your-favorite-composer-in-the-canon. But I do feel if someone’s going to invest the time and energy to play it or listen to it, it better not be a waste of time. Of course, these things are completely subjective. One person’s waste of time is another’s epiphany, and vice versa. But the more music I come to know, which at this point is quite a lot, the harder I find it to compose.
Reading Michael Kurtz’s biography of Sofia Gubaidulina, which was finally published in English translation last year, I came across the fascinating account of how she became a composer. At the age of six, her parents purchased a baby grand piano for her and her sister, believing that every educated person should have some musical training. (They were not particularly well off, but back in 1930s Kazan, capital city of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, grands were cheaper than uprights because they were too big for most apartments.) Sofia was taught to play simple children’s pieces with only a two octave range, but her curiosity very quickly led her to explore all sorts of other sounds, from the highest and lowest registers to even the insides of the piano. This was miraculously at the same time that, unbeknownst to her, Cage was first preparing a piano. Gubaidulina naïvely assumed that the pieces she was learning were the only music that existed, so she started to compose in order to take greater advantage of the piano’s rich sonic palatte and offer people something else to play. According to the biography, she remembers saying, “Since mankind suffers such deprivation, I’ll do some composing myself.”
So perhaps to initiate the creative process, familiarity with what is out there can be more of a hindrance than a source of inspiration. Yet at the same time, following such a path of ignorance-is-bliss is ultimately an exercise in solipsism. There are no works that Gubaidulina currently acknowledges composed before she was in her late 20s and had moved to Moscow where, while remaining an icoloclast, she was immersed in the center of Soviet musical activities.